Interview: Writer-Director John Swetnam of the Dance film “Breaking Through”

Posted on October 11, 2015 at 3:49 pm

John Swetnam is the director of “Breaking Through,” the story of a young dancer who achieves viral fame and then sees it strain her relationships with her friends. I talked to him about the best way to film dancers “There was a Fred Astaire number that I showed my DP . It was one of these numbers where it was incredible because the camera hardly moved, it was sort of this really long wide shot that panned back and forth as they danced and I just loved it because it was like — they can dance! That was one of the things that was really important to me. In a lot of dance movies what happens is, you get the best actors you can, but not necessarily the best dancers so sometimes you have to have a body double or you have to have a lot of editing tricks to make the dance look good and make it look like they can dance, where I was really interested in just showing amazing dancers. It was a thought that I had after seeing every dance movie probably ever made. But I just wanted to put a camera around them, just shoot it handheld, have long takes and just watch them dance, not try to do anything else just let them be dancers. So that was a huge influence for me and that was the first thing I said when I was making ‘Breaking Through.’ I said, ‘I just want a handheld camera and just point it at them and let them be great and not try to hide that in any way.'”

The dances in the film are in a variety of settings, including one inside a car, a challenge, especially with a limited budget. “I’ve worked more in the studio system where you have lots of money and lots of time to do these things where with this movie the biggest thing from the beginning was we just want to make a movie. So we were just like: ‘What is it going to take?’ So we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of time. And I’m working dancers who were not actors. Almost all of them I found through auditions or on YouTube and they never acted in anything before. So it’s like super challenging already because you have a tight budget and you have a tight shoot and you working with people that have never acted before. So the whole thing was really really difficult. But when we got to the dance numbers that actually became the easier part because they were comfortable compared to the dialogue scenes. So that was the fun stuff. It was just like putting them in a cool location. They had done the choreography a couple weeks before, they just shine. I always had the idea for the car thing as I always see YouTube videos where you put the camera up in the front and they came up with the choreography and did it really fast. They nailed it every time and had such a blast doing it, and I thought it was really fun. And then the couple dancing scene which is one of my favorites. Keone and Mari Madrid are a huge YouTube dancing couple and their choreography is really about couples and storytelling. That was the one number that they choreographed and it was incredible because you’re telling the story between two people. You have this amazing dance number going on at the same time it’s servicing the characters and narrative. I had originally planned to shoot that at an abandoned basketball court with a spotlight. So originally it was supposed to be on a cement parking lot and then Enis, the choreographer said, ‘What if we just move it over here where they shot that last scene where they’re talking on the bench?’ We moved it over there to the sand and the dust literally just happened. But we did not plan for that, nothing. It was this kind of one of those ‘Holy cow this looks pretty cool!’ It was one of those lucky moments.”

Swetnam is not a dancer himself (other than “the occasional wedding or night club”) but he loves working with them. “I really love the energy of dancers. There’s something about working with dancers. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t have the egos of actors but there’s something very sincere about them. It’s just so hungry and ambitious and cool. I’m actually doing another dance series that I am shooting in the fall. I do enjoy it. I do other things but hopefully the dance world will let me just stay in it as long as I can.” He wanted the movie to reflect the changes in the way that dancers and choreographers connect to their audiences. “They’re taking control for themselves now. Choreographers and dancers can create their own online presence, and they themselves become a brand, a name that you will recognize. And I think that that movement is already happening. The subculture that I talk about in the movie is not only real, but it’s growing exponentially. Bigger brands, bigger companies are getting involved. It’s blowing up where these kids have millions of followers that are making lots of money, making their own videos, and they are becoming sort of their own kind of celebrity. And I just think that for anyone who wants to dance they’re so many places to dance out there now. If you want to see a great dance number you can go on YouTube and there’s thousands of these really well done dance numbers. If you want to learn how to dance they have tutorials. It’s just opens it up to everybody I dig that and I think it’s just moving more and more in that direction and I want to be a part of that space as these online dancers and that community continues to grow.”

The movie touches on some serious themes as well. “I wanted to get as many ideas in it as I possibly could and one was seeing the other side of it. It’s not just about Youtube and celebrity. It’s about the access because of the internet. With kids whose videos get leaked there are sometimes pretty tragic consequences. So I at least felt like I had to try my best to get that in there because it’s part of that world. A lot of people just want to tape everything film it and get it online. And there’s a danger to that as well you know because anyone can do that and you have to be very very careful about what you put out there, and what you allowed to be put out there. So it was important to show that side of it as much as I could. It’s important especially for young people. Maybe they just feel like ‘Don’t let that happen to me’ kind of thing. So it was important. I like to try to have some kind of message. I don’t want to be a preacher or I don’t want to be on a pulpit I just like to put something out there for people to check out and talk about.”

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Dancing! Tributes on Slate and at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted on October 19, 2013 at 10:31 am

Washington DC’s National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorite museums, and yesterday I had the great treat of visiting a special exhibit on the history of dance with photos, paintings, drawings, and video.  Josephine Baker’s famous banana dance shows that the inspiration for Miley Cyrus goes back almost 100 years.  Clips showed the Nicholas Brothers in “Stormy Weather,” John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and Beyoncé singing “Single Ladies.”  One wall had QR codes linking to YouTube videos, including a “Thriller” dance at a wedding with over 17 million hits.

And Slate has a nice tribute to dancing in the movies, featuring John Travolta (again) in “Pulp Fiction,” Elvis Presley in “Jailhouse Rock,” and Channing Tatum and his wife Jenna Dewan in “Step Up.”

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